Google passes on chance to signal stronger Android patent defense

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On a day when Google announced it was activating 550,000 Android devices a day and had 6 billion Android Market downloads, perhaps it was asking too much to hear how the company was planning on defending manufacturers and developers from growing patent claims surrounding Android. Google CEO Larry Page did take on a question Thursday about what Google was planning on doing regarding Android’s patent situation but generally side-stepped the query, pointing to Android’s overall momentum before finishing with a modest commitment.

“Now, of course, despite the efforts of some of our competitors, there hasn’t been any slowdown in any of those things. And, you know, partners and developers are continuing to expand the Android ecosystem. And I should say, of course, we’re really committed to Android and continue to support that platform and ecosystem, and do it in a cost-effective manner,” said Page during Google’s quarterly earnings call.

Now, perhaps a conference call is not the place to outline a larger intellectual property defense for Android or maybe Google is not prepared to talk about it yet. The company does appear to be stocking up on patent attorneys so it’s apparently working on the issue. But it would have been good to take this opportunity to share more about how Google is working to bulk up Android and how committed it is to ensuring manufacturers and developers will be covered by patent claims. Some kind of signal to partners, even just some stronger talk, would have been welcome. But as it stands, the situation really isn’t any clearer.

This comes after Google was outbid on Nortel’s 6,000 patents by a consortium including Apple, Research In Motion and Microsoft. That bid was approved by courts in the U.S. and Canada though it could still be held up by the Department of Justice. That case was clearly an important part of Google’s strategy, enough to warrant bids of up to $4 billion. Now, Google is no further along though it did force others to pay up for the patents. Page said Google has “a lot of IP in progress — not only what has been issued,” but patents take a long time to get approved, which again, doesn’t address the situation today.

Right now, Android manufacturers are systematically being targeted by Microsoft, Apple and Oracle. Microsoft in particular has been locking up licensing agreements with manufacturers, getting them to pay patent royalties because of alleged Android patent infringement of Microsoft IP. Microsoft has now set its sights on Samsung, the largest of the Android manufacturers, looking to extract $15 a device. Oracle is also approaching manufacturers about licensing deals.

Meanwhile, patent troll Lodsys is going after Android developers with claims that they’re infringing on patents regarding in-app purchase. While Apple has filed a motion to intervene on behalf of its developers against similar claims, Google hasn’t said anything yet.

Google has made clear that it thinks the patent system is broken and will be looking for reform. The loss of the Nortel patents may be another catalyst for that effort. But those things take time. Right now, Android continues to look vulnerable and companies like Oracle, which is pursuing a patent infringement case against Google, are not letting up on the patent issue.

Page did say Google would support Android, but he said it would be done in a “cost-effective manner.” That, again, isn’t exactly reassuring talk. It’s likely he was referring to not overpaying for the Nortel patents. But it’s unclear how frugal Google plans on being in this fight.

I can see that overall Page was trying to make clear that even with the patent questions, manufacturers don’t seem to be concerned. They’re still churning out devices and helping push activations up and their ranks are only increasing. The message is: “Why would they invest if the platform is under dispute?”

It’s a good line of reasoning, but I think it also shows the platform is becoming more of a target each day. With each partner that signs up, it’s another opportunity for Oracle or Microsoft to extract more royalty payments. At some point, if they prevail on their patent claims, it could cause manufacturers to slow down their commitment to Android. I doubt this will get resolved quickly, and Google has to have a plan in place, so we’ll just need to stay tuned. But it had a chance to at least demonstrate more forcefully that it’s prepared to fight hard on this issue and will have the back of its manufacturers and developers. But instead, by citing the growth of the platform, it seems to just to invite more claims in the future.

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